Review: My Sister, The Serial Killer, Oyinkan Braithwaite

A title like that is a definite attention-grabber and perhaps this is why this book that has been literary-Marmite over the past few years. Every review I read either praises it to the skies or shrieks in disbelief that it was shortlisted for a major prize. I came to the novel with an open mind and was immediately carried away by its arresting opening line; ‘Ayoola summons me with these words – Korede, I killed him. I had hoped I would never hear those words again‘. It’s the third time one of Ayoola’s boyfriends have met their ends in ‘self-defence’. It’s starting to really stress Korede out. More satire than slasher, My Sister, The Serial Killer is a story with a song at its heart.

We meet Korede as she tries to clean up Ayoola’s latest mess. The hardest part is getting at the blood that has seeped in between the shower and the caulking. It is, she explains, ‘an easy part to forget‘. It’s lucky that she has had so much practice. They take the body to ‘where we took the last – over the bridge and into the water. At least he won’t be lonely‘. Korede manages everything from cleaning up to instructing Ayoola on how long to maintain a respectful social media presence to keep up the pretence of the grieving girlfriend. Ayoola pouts, ‘How long am I meant to post boring, sad stuff?‘ When told to do so for a year, she huffs ‘You must be kidding me‘. Once again, Ayoola has no visible injuries and displays no signs of guilt. All the same, Korede tries to give her the benefit of the doubt. All that changes though when Ayoola catches the eye of a doctor in the hospital where Korede works as a nurse. Not just any doctor either, but Tade, who Korede has long had a crush on.

Braithwaite puts a good deal more emphasis on the love triangle here rather than the unsolved murders. To be fair though, it isn’t much of a love triangle, more Korede gazing after Tade who looks straight past her to Ayoola. It was round here that the book started to lose me. Korede grieves as she sees Tade buy Ayoola expensive jewellery and notes when either of them wear designer clothing. I can see that these are signals to the reader that they too are supposed to be envious. The problem is that I have never really connected with that degree of consumerism. I don’t buy designer gear and when my partner proposed to me, I had requested in advance that there be no ring involved. So it was hard to empathise with Korede’s anguish over all the fancy stuff that she wasn’t being given.

Despite the strong opening, the novel felt like it could have done with a redraft. The pressure point is the relationship between the sisters, as Korede is forced to decide whether she can stand by and allow her sister to potentially kill again. The problem is that Korede never becomes a strong enough character to make the conflict compelling. It is clear that nobody else in the novel particularly likes her and given how much time she spends complaining, this is no surprise. More should probably have been made of her friendship with the coma patient, who Korede had been using as a confessor before his inconvenient awakening. An opportunity to see Korede as more than a misery-guts harridan might have made her a more appealing protagonist. It didn’t help that the prose descended quite so often into cliche.

More than anything though, My Sister, The Serial Killer felt like a case of butterfingers. It comes very close to being something exceptional. This is a rare piece of representation for Nigerian culture in mainstream fiction. Although I have never actually visited that country, I have a soft spot for it since I taught a class of predominantly Nigerian children many years ago. The clash between older traditions and western social mores did make things interesting and indeed it is that collision which is at the core of the novel. Korede and Ayoola’s late father tried to exert his authority in a traditional way but his daughters refused to submit. Yet Braithwaite’s novel has more going on than a simple rebellion against patriarchal society. Korede asks Tade why he loves Ayoola and is disgusted when all he can come up with are references to Ayoola’s appearance. Nothing about her personality or humour or passions. The message is that although he may appear to be perfect, Tade is just as bad as the rest of them. He is still objectifying women. In that case, is Ayoola a crusader rather than a killer?

If Braithwaite had been able to strip back to this central question, this could have been a far more successful satire on the battle of the sexes. The finale is ridiculously rushed and the whole book feels quite unfinished. All the same, I suspect that the core issue with My Sister, The Serial Killer is a simple case of over-hype. By landing up on the Booker longlist and the shortlist for the Women’s Prize, reviewers arrived with high expectations. They expected something self-consciously literary with greater psychological depth. Instead they got two sisters having an extended squabble. And because of that, a large chunk of reviews missed the deadpan wit with which Braithwaite captures the sibling sniping. When Korede notices a missed call from Ayoola, she remarks to the reader, ‘Maybe she is reaching out because she has sent another man to his grave prematurely […] Or maybe she wants to know if I can buy eggs on the way home. Either way, I’m not picking up.‘ Despite its faults, this is a darkly comic and irreverent novel told with real verve – a great choice for lockdown light reading.

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My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
Published by Atlantic Books on January 3rd 2019
Genres: Fiction, Humorous, Black Humor, Women, Literary, Thrillers, Psychological, Mystery & Detective, Women Sleuths, General, Suspense, Humor
Pages: 226
ISBN: 9781786495990

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2 thoughts on “Review: My Sister, The Serial Killer, Oyinkan Braithwaite

  1. I completely get where you are coming from about readers being potentially disappointed in books which have been exposed to too much hype of one sort or another. I have experienced something of this myself recently with a book which everyone seems to love, and I just felt a bit underwhelmed, though it was by no means terrible. I sometimes wonder whether people’s brains attempt to rebel against the popular or expected opinions? As for My Sister, it is actually the next but one on my current reading list, as I am only now gettin round to last year’s Booker list. It sounds like fun, if a bit light for Booker, but I’m glad you enjoyed it on the whole.

    1. I think that it can be a mood thing as much as anything else. Sometimes I can find myself very irritated by a book’s flaws but then on other days I can read something that would normally tick off all my bookish peeves and I just enjoy it for what it is. I think that there was a bit of the latter going on here. It was a very different sort of read for me and although it had its bumpy moments, I did enjoy it. I hope that you do too

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